From the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Monastery of the Apostles
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster
Hundreds of people have traveled to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles Monastery in rural Missouri to view the body of a nun who appears to show no signs of decay about four years after her death, according to the Catholic News Agency.
The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died aged 95 in 2019, was exhumed “about four years later” so it can be moved to her final resting place inside a convent chapel, the Catholic News Agency reported.
When the coffin was exhumed, Lancaster’s body was apparently “incorrupt”, which in Catholic tradition refers to the preservation of the corpse from normal decay. The remains were intact, although the body had not been embalmed and was in a wooden casket, according to the news outlet.
The discovery has caught the attention of some members of the church and prompted an investigation.
The diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph issued a statement about the discovery.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of Sister Wilhelmina’s mortal remains to enable a thorough investigation… Bishop [James] Johnston urges all the faithful to continue to pray during this time of inquiry for God’s will.”
The statement from the diocese notes that “Immortality” is very rare and a “well-established process to pursue the cause of sainthood,” but the process has not begun in Lancaster’s case.
Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles Monastery in Gower, Missouri.
The Catholic News Agency reports that more than 100 incorruptible bodies have been canonized — their bodies defying the process of decay. In Catholicism, incorruptible saints bear witness to the truth of the resurrection and the life to come.
Experts say it’s not necessarily uncommon for bodies to remain well-preserved, especially in the first few years after death.
Western Carolina University associate professor and director of forensic anthropology Nicholas V. Passalacqua told CNN in an email: “It’s hard to say how common this is because bodies are rarely exhumed after burial. But there are many famous cases of well-preserved human remains. Not just things like Egyptian mummies, which were intentionally preserved, but also things like Europe’s bog bodies, which were very well preserved for thousands of years because they were in low-oxygen environments, which limited bacterial growth and remains access to scavengers.”
Passalacqua also noted “generally, when we bury a body at our human decomposition facility, we expect it to take ~5 years for the body to become skeletonized. That is, without a casket or other container or wrapping surrounding the remains. So for this body, which was buried in a coffin, I personally do not find it too surprising that the remains are relatively well preserved after only four years.”
According to the Catholic News Agency, the body will be laid out in the sisters’ chapel until May 29, when the sisters plan a rosary procession. After the procession, Sister Wilhelmina’s body will be encased in glass near St. Joseph altar in the chapel to welcome devotees.
CNN has reached out to the Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles for more information.